Thursday, June 8, 2017

Observing a critique in a freshmen-level figure drawing class

Almost ten years ago, I participated in an NSF-sponsored workshop on studio-based learning (SBL) for computer science education. Briefly, this technique is inspired by the pedagogy of traditional studio disciplines such as art and architecture; it is characterized by the crits (critiques) through which students present artifacts that represent their understanding, formally and informally, and they receive feedback from peers and experts. Participating in the workshop was highly influential on me as a young assistant professor, both for the content and for the professionalization: I was able to see how the workshop was run and spend a lot of time talking to educators—new and seasoned—from all over the world. I wrote a few scholarly articles on SBL, and I'm a little disappointed that it didn't become more of a movement. The old Web site is gone, and there are not many new publications exploring this approach. I suspect it will be another blip on the historic-pedagogic radar, but that does not take away from the positive impact it has had, and continues to have, on those of us who follow it.

About two weeks ago, I ran into a friend of mine who teaches at the BSU Honors College, and we got to talking about effective teaching techniques for engaging honors students. Students have to be bright to get into the Honors College of course, but this means many of them have developed bad intellectual habits: they got through K-12 by being smart, not by being diligent. In particular, I told him about how I have my students bring posters that represent their week's efforts, and we stick these to the wall for group discussion; I want more students to engage more authentically with the work that is shown, to explore the connections among ideas, where many of them tend to sit back and stay quiet. My friend suggested that I should go observe a crit in an art class. Of course I should! I have internalized much of the pedagogy of SBL, but I have spent very little time building an understanding of where it comes from. I did observe informal crits in a friend's animation class a few years ago, but I had never seen a formal crit. I had lunch with a different colleague later that day, and who should enter the restaurant but my friend Barbara, who is an art professor! I hopped up and asked if she was teaching any summer courses and whether I could observe a formal critique. She was happy to have me, and so today I am sharing my notes from observing Monday's class.

This summer, Barbara is teaching Figure Drawing, a freshmen-level class for art majors. It is a foundations course taken by all art majors regardless of intended specialization. She was apologetic about them being freshmen, so they themselves were new to the process of giving and receiving feedback through crits; however, this is exactly what I wanted to see, since I was more interested in how she scaffolded their learning about this rather than what they already knew about it. If I used any of these techniques with my Computer Science majors or interdisciplinary courses, odds are it would be brand new to these students as well.

That should give you enough of a background and context for the following notes. I will share my observations of what I saw along with some reflections of what I think, along with notes about how this might be useful for my teaching.

The format crit took place in a different space than their usual classroom. In the hallway outside the School of Art administrative offices is a large, white, bracket-shaped ("[") wall designed to have work pinned to it. The twelve students, the instructor, and I sat on the inside of this wall; the students tacked their work to the wall, along with a small paper showing their name. The particular work being shown was a pair of self-portraits, one a value study from earlier in the semester, and the other a contour drawing. I don't think I had ever seen a contour drawing before, and it got me thinking about how I might use the concept of secondary contours in my miniature painting.

One of the first things I noticed was the obvious variety in outcomes. Some of the work displayed high standards of technical skill, conceptualization, and execution; others were amateurish in comparison. As I mentioned, this course is taken by all art majors regardless of specialization, and so I assumed I was seeing differences in, say, someone focused on drawing vs someone focused on ceramics. Still, I think it is noteworthy, and it's definitely relevant to my own courses: students always come in with a range of backgrounds, skills, experiences, and subjective misconceptions. I saw some students putting up their work, and so I also noticed that even the best among these drawings did not really look like their subjects: a student with a pocked face is shown with a clear complexion; a student with squat, square features is shown with more elegant proportions. I do now know, but I am curious, whether this was because the students were studying the ideal proportions of human faces, or whether I was getting a glimpse of how the students saw themselves. I am less certain what this property means for my work, since I don't ask explicitly for self-portraits, but given that work will always reflect its creator, I wonder if there's something there to draw upon.

Barbara gave a bit of direction as students posted their work, telling the students to spread their work out horizontally rather than posting them low near the floor, and to place the two portraits next to each other. Once everything was in place, she distributed a worksheet to each student. The top third of the sheet contained three questions for the artist, some dealing with technical aspects of the work and some dealing with aesthetic and narrative aspects. She gave them a few minutes to complete this top portion, then collected the sheets, shuffled, and redistributed them; by this mechanism students were assigned a peer's work to critique. This surprised me, since naively I had pictured all the critiques being communal, that everyone would look at everyone's work, as I do it in my game design class or during the poster session-style review of the two-week project in CS222. Once the worksheets were redistributed, students' critiques were guided by the bottom two-thirds, which included five questions for the critic. These questions again included technical and narrative qualities of the work, and Barbara reminded the students that these aligned with the learning objectives of the assignments. The students had fifteen minutes to write their comments. Even though Barbara had told them they should get up and observe the work both from near and far, about halfway through, she had to remind them again to get up off of their comfortable beanbag chairs and walk up to the work.

As I was watching them work, I thought about how some of this could have been done beforehand, especially the artist's reflections. However, I suspect that doing this at the beginning of the meeting helped prime students to think critically about their work. The papers provide a convenient, tangible means of assigning critics, and they also give the instructor something concrete to collect and mark. I could imagine doing something like this for the CS222 two-week project evaluation, which for the past few semesters I have done as a poster session. I encourage students to view each others' teams work, and I model this behavior myself. Practically everyone is engaged, but in retrospect, they don't have concrete scaffolding in how to discuss the work. I think they talk about the kinds of things we have discussed in class, that are covered in the book, and that I have presented in my formal presentations and assignment feedback; I can hear them talking about algorithms and design, and students are always eager to ask successful teams, "How did you do that?!" I wonder if random assignment of critiques—with a handout like Barbara's—would add rigor and learning to this experience, or if it would diminish the interest-driven and spontaneous conversations that arise? With the amount of dynamic conversation and chaos in the room, this may be the kind of research question that needs external evaluations or analysis of recorded sessions.

Also during this time, Barbara told me that one of the explicit goals of the formal critique is to help students develop their ability to use the right nomenclature. (I even learned a new word: chiaroscuro!) I acknowledged the sense of this, but it wasn't until a few moments later that I grabbed my notes and pointed this out—that the program has explicit goals about helping students develop the right nomenclature, that the crits can help with this, and that I didn't at first jump on this idea and write it down. Even while compiling my notes for this write-up, I had to rediscover this fact! I think this should not be overlooked, however. I have pointed out several times in discussions, probably in blog posts, and certainly during foundations program assessment in Computer Science, that my sophomore students frequently have very little grasp of the technical terminology of our field. I regularly hear students talk about "if loops" for example, or say "class" when they mean "method" or "object" or even "field". Looking at the pedagogy leading up to my course, however, they have almost no opportunity to develop their use of these terms. I used to have students write lab reports back when I taught the intro course over ten years ago, but I don't think anyone else here has expected their CS students to do so much writing. However, we need to help students develop clear ideas, and communicating these ideas is the best way to identify the holes and misconceptions contained therein. This coming academic year will be another assessment year for my Foundations Curriculum Committee: as long-time chair of this committee, I like to alternate focus between assessment and revision. I will be sure to look more carefully at how we help our students learn to communicate the right ideas, including—naturally—what I can do in CS222 to facilitate this as well.

After the students completed their written critiques, Barbara gave the students a pep talk about how to proceed, as this was their first formal crit. She reminded them that what they are doing is difficult, but that it gets easier the more you do it. She also tells them that each critique should give the artist something concrete that "they can do tonight" to improve the portraits. I noticed that this was not actually one of the explicit questions on the worksheet but rather an emergent property of a successful critique; I wondered if it was purposefully not listed as a question on the worksheet or if this was an oversight.

Barbara chose an ordering to go through the work based on how it was arranged on the walls. The critic stood by the work and introduced it, being invited to either read or summarize the artist's statements from the worksheet; some read, some summarized, and most did a mixture of the two. The critics gave their presentations, with the instructor occasionally interjecting to ask for more specific details or to encourage the right nomenclature. After the critic's presentation (and occasionally during), Barbara turned to the rest of the class and asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the critique. Following this, the artist was invited to respond to the critique, and then they moved on to the next one. I watched about half of the crits before I had to leave, which included what I considered a good range of the output quality. I noticed that Barbara pushed back pretty hard on the bad parts of good work, I suspect because of the promise of real understanding or excellence. I noticed that I do this as well: I will push a bit harder on students who are getting closer to real understanding, whereas those who reject feedback tend to get less of it. I thought that both Barbara's and the critics' feedback was surprisingly gentle to some of the work that was particularly bad. The framing of her questions encouraged positive feedback, which is good, yet I found myself thinking, "Is no one else going to point out that this guy's eyes are 2/3 of the way up his head?" This may be because no one wanted to really hold a peer's feet to the fire, or because they are freshmen, or because of cultural differences; I cannot help but think a room of Computer Science students would be less likely to let stand something with obvious structural insufficiency.

The students were getting pretty punch by four or five crits in. I happen to know that these students are taking a boatload of summer art courses, which means they are all carrying physically and intellectually brutal schedules. Even with just twelve students, going person-by-person through a crit means that you're fighting against attention span. Perhaps students later in the program simply become more accustomed or enculturated into this.

I am very grateful to Barbara and the students for welcoming me as an observer to this class. I believe I have captured all of my important observations into these notes, and I hope that they might be useful to you, dear reader, even you are just Future Me. In the meantime, I'm going to read some more about secondary contours and chiaroscuro. Thanks for reading!

No comments:

Post a Comment